Nothing shakes a growth group up like new members, but what if those new members are non-Christians? How should you lead in that situation? How do you manage the good things and the difficulties?
Non-Christians enter groups in all sorts of ways. They might have been invited by a member as part of your mission strategy; they might be a member’s spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend or relative; they might be a friend or neighbour who’s lonely or looking for spiritual conversations—or they might be a flatmate who was too slow getting off the couch. However they arrived, there are a number of things to think about when you’re leading a group with non-Christians in it.
In many ways, it’s a great thing to have non-Christians in the group. It’s an opportunity for them to read the Bible, meet Jesus, and hopefully be saved. We should be willing and keen to proclaim the gospel to them, even if this is ‘inconvenient’. As Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2). It’s also a chance for the regulars to get better at explaining God’s word more clearly. As Colin Marshall says in Growth Groups: “Their often clichéd answers to questions are challenged and jargon has to be explained”.1
However, there are several challenges for the leader. Firstly, the content of a regular study will often go way over the head of the non-Christian. We might not realize it, but we assume all sorts of things that would be very new to them, fundamental ideas such as the reliability of the Bible, the deity and resurrection of Jesus, and the necessity of counter-cultural Christian obedience. The non-Christian might be sitting there wondering what on earth everyone is talking about. This is likely to be an increasing problem as fewer people are exposed to basic Christian teaching as a child. The danger is the non-Christian gains nothing and after a while gives up investigating the gospel.
Secondly, the non-Christian might accidently end up with a moralistic version of Christianity. Most likely they assume that being a Christian is about being good and going to church. They then hear the group members talk about being more kind, or self-controlled, or going to church, without realizing that these actions are a response to grace and not a strategy to gain God’s approval. If they to apply these to themselves they could end up thinking they’re Christian because they’re doing some good and religious activities. Thus, they’re worse off than before!
Thirdly, non-Christians in a group can go a long time without being specifically called to repent from their old way of life and follow Jesus. However, there’s an urgency for conversion in the gospel message when Paul says to the Athenians “now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). This is something non-Christians need to hear more regularly than would come up in an average growth group term.
It’s also worth bearing in mind the potential long-term problems for the Christians in the group. If the study stays on a basic level for too long they won’t grow as much as we would like. Also, conversations about everyone’s evangelistic efforts and prayer for non-Christians become a bit awkward if there’s a real live non-Christian in the room.
For all these reasons, many churches set up different strategies to better evangelize curious non-Christians. These strategies can often be in a small group format so the benefits of discussion “in relationship” are still there. Stephen Liggins recently wrote a helpful article, ‘Broaden your evangelistic repertoire’, on various evangelistic strategies. At our church we run a regular talk and table discussion series called Life that leads (hopefully) into follow-up small groups.
The point of more purposeful evangelism strategies, though, is not to take evangelism off our group members’ hands and give it to ‘experts’. We want every Christian to be a disciple maker! So it would be great if group members could join their friend and go with them to the evangelistic course, even at the expense of regular growth group for a time if necessary. This means they can keep explaining the gospel and answering questions before, during and after the course.
If courses or strategies like the above are not available, or it still seems better for the non-Christian to be in the group, then a good option would be for you (or the friend who invited them) to get together one-to-one before each meeting to go through the study. This allows you to answer more questions, keep explaining Jesus and his gospel of grace, and urge them to repent and have faith in him. That might seem like a big time investment for busy people—but that’s the nature of evangelism. It’s intensive and time-consuming, but worth doing for the sake of our friend’s salvation.
Non-Christians always make for interesting group members. The challenge for us is to work out the best way to lead them to Christ and keep our group growing. Hopefully, if that’s your situation, God will answer your prayers and you and your group can have the joy of welcoming a brother or sister into the kingdom.